Monkey Man

A great thing about action movies as opposed to some of the other genres I get excited about is that they often have a chance to sneak up on me. I had no inkling of a movie called MONKEY MAN coming until the trailer dropped just a couple of months ago. And then all the sudden that morning I knew that the actor Dev Patel (THE LAST AIRBENDER, THE GREEN KNIGHT) had practiced Taekwondo since he was ten years old, had competed in national and international competitions, and grew into a passionate fan of international action cinema, so now he was not only starring in a violent martial arts revenge movie set in India, but also making it his directorial debut. And I read that Netflix produced it but Jordan Peele saw it and convinced them to sell it to Universal so it could play theaters. (Later we learned that Netflix was trying to get rid of it because it kinda seemed like it was criticizing the current right wing regime in India and might complicate their business dealings. Embarrassing for them, good for us.)

There was some grumbling among my friends in action movie Twitter ‘cause when Borys Kit tweeted out that first story he short-handed MONKEY MAN as “John Wick in Mumbai.” They said well actually JOHN WICK didn’t invent that stuff, these movies take inspiration from the cinema of South Korea, Hong Kong, India, etc. I thought yeah, okay, but you knew what he meant. Funny thing is, it turns out MONKEY MAN explicitly references JOHN WICK, thanks Chad Stahelski on the credits, was going to use the same action team until the pandemic changed their plans, and shines brightest when showcasing Patel’s lanky, Keanu-like limbs draped in a nice suit, battering through staff and patrons of an elite establishment. There’s even an important dog character!

It’s not like JOHN WICK in any derivative ways, but it’s exciting in a similar way. Like JOHN WICK, MONKEY MAN has a well known actor – this time with little previous association with the action genre – suddenly stepping out of the shadows having already done the work to make a stylish, viscerally entertaining banger, based in classical tropes but establishing its own voice, setting up despicable bad guys and knocking them down, thankfully with more fists (and knives, and broken bottles) than guns. The comparison is not unreasonable! I say take the compliment.

A major story difference is that rather than being a legend in the underworld, Patel’s character is a nameless nobody. I mean really, we don’t even know his name, we know he’s making it up when he calls himself “Bobby.” (The credits call him “Kid.”) We get the idea that someone killed his mother (Adithi Kalkunte, HOTEL MUMBAI) in front of him when he was a kid, and more will be filled in about that later. But he seems to have already spent years preparing for his revenge, which begins by having people steal the wallet of Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar, BABLI BOUNCER), the manager of a fancy hotel-like brothel called Kings, so that he can return it to her and talk her into giving him an entry level job. From there he works his way up by working hard and getting on the good side of one of his bosses, Alphonso (Pitobash, SHOR IN THE CITY) with an insider gambling tip.

See, I didn’t mention that “Bobby” also participates in brutal underground fights at a place called Tiger’s Temple, Tiger being the owner and emcee, played by Sharlto Copley (DISTRICT 9, THE A-TEAM, Spike Lee’s OLDBOY). Bobby is the fighter in the monkey mask. We see that he can fight and take punishment, but isn’t necessarily the top guy. When he tells Alphonso to bet on the monkey winning two rounds and going down in the third we can see that he can handle himself and also is willing to do anything to achieve his objectives.

It’s a great structure because we realize okay, he’s got this plan, and he’s building to the point where he can set it in motion, but then way too early for it to be over he finds his window when he can be alone in the restroom with Rana Sing (Sikandar Kher, Sense8), who acts like a gangster but is the chief of police. So Bobby takes his shot but it goes spectacularly wrong, he gets beat up and chased across town. He didn’t get him, he blew his cover, and later he gets shot by police.

Okay, so we were on this trajectory, then we got knocked off, what now? How about one of my favorite action tropes: he falls into a lake, wakes up in a temple where he’s being nursed back to health, and ends up training and learning how to try again with a whole new mentality. Cinema. An original new wrinkle for this version is that his savior Alpha (Vipin Sharma, GANGS OF WASSEYPUR) and the others in the temple are members of the hijra community – trans women, considered a third gender.

It’s very much an underdog story, and not just in the usual “the odds are against him” action movie sense. Also not just in the sense that he feeds rich people food to a stray alley dog. The income inequality in the fictional city of Yatana is always present – during a car chase, for example, we see children sleeping on the street. The villains are exploiters living opulent lives. Rana works for a supposedly righteous guru called Baba Shakti (Makrand Deshpande, JUNGLEE, RRR), and in fact killed Bobby’s mother while clearing out their forest village to build the compound Baba still operates from. Baba also leads an oppressive political movement who are trying to force the hijra out of the temple, and who have a nationalist candidate set to win the big election on Diwali.

So Bobby and his new friends have to help and learn from each other, and he has to expand from his single-minded revenge mission to a larger cause, in order to succeed. And since this is an action movie, part of that includes building a new fighting style. You know I’m a sucker for novel training methods, so I believe my favorite thing in the whole movie is the bit where a tabla master makes sounds with his drums to tell him what kind of hits to do on his punching bag, and to establish a rhythm for him to follow. I didn’t even know it was Zakir Hussain, who has played with George Harrison, Van Morrison and Earth, Wind & Fire, and on the scores for APOCALYPSE NOW and LITTLE BUDDHA. I know him from Bill Laswell’s project Tabla Beat Science. (I swear I had that around here somewhere, but I can’t find it.)

The action is fast, brutal, and varied. I like a movie that gives us fights in a dingy ring, on the streets, in a kitchen, in a bathroom, and everywhere else. Often Patel and d.p. Sharone Meir (THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT [2009], WHIPLASH, SILENT NIGHT) put the camera right in the middle of the battle in a way that’s not usually my preference, but I think it’s mostly very effective here. The choreographer is Brahim Chab, whose stunt career spans everything from DTV classics to Indian cinema to the Jackie Chan stunt team. He’s doubled Scott Adkins and played fighters in MAN OF TAI CHI, NEVER BACK DOWN: NO SURRENDER and BOYKA: UNDISPUTED, among many others. I wasn’t familiar with him, but this week’s Action For Everyone has a really good talk with him.

I think the action pay offs are more than sufficient, but to me it’s all the little details of the story and storytelling that make it really sing. Like I like that Alphonso is a funny character we come to enjoy the company of but aren’t asked to love. He’s a guy who Bobby needs for his purposes, he provides a supercharged tuk-tuk named after Nicki Minaj for some somewhat comical chase scenes, and he begins to respect Bobby when he sees him fight. But he’s also an asshole who’s part of this scumbag operation, only helping because he’s been tricked, and the movie never asks us to pretend all is forgiven, nor does it make him turn villainous when the truth gets out. He finally gets a full picture of this Monkey Man and his revenge, gives a serious “holy shit” look, and the rest is left to our imagination.

The escort Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala, The Night Manager) is a smaller character but I also really appreciate the economy of her arc. She’s the only other one who really acknowledges Bobby at Kings, noticing how much it bothers him to see how Rana treats her, though she doesn’t know the reason. It’s meaningful for her to approach him and acknowledge this but she basically tells him to toughen up, he can’t do this job if that kind of stuff is gonna bother him. It seems like realistic advice but when the shit goes down and Sita takes the opportunity to whack Queenie over the head we know she’s ready for a new reality.

I also love the motif of bleach. Initially it represents having to do dirty jobs. When Bobby begs Queenie for a job he shows her his burnt hand, claiming it’s from bleach, to show what a hard and humble worker he is. He takes his alias from the brand of powdered bleach he uses to clean the kitchen and bathrooms, and that he later cuts Rana’s cocaine with. And when he’s symbolically reborn before his final attack he takes the monkey mask and dunks it in bleach. I think it’s a Hindu reference, but maybe it’s to disinfect it, or transform it, make it new. I don’t know exactly, but it’s cool.

I wondered if there might be some nods to Patel’s previous roles. He delivers chai to Queenie, which was his job in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. He gave the big showy role to Sharlto Copley, who he co-starred with in CHAPPIE. I’m pro-CHAPPIE and pro-Sharlto Copley showing up playing weirdos in all kinds of movies, so I admire that. There’s a scene with a little boy named Lion – is that a reference to his movie LION, where he was the grown up version of a street kid like that? I think it might be. That’s cute.

The other lion reference in the movie is a negative one. We see fawning media profiles of Baba, and they call him “the Lion of India,” talking about him coming from poverty, being this righteous, natural, spiritual being. But when the real guy is out in the world the camera follows the shiny lion hood ornament of his luxury vehicle, ‘cause the Lion of India is just another super-rich asshole lording over everybody.

There’s so much attention to detail in this movie, everything seems very purposeful. I mentioned to my friend Wil how the early fights are shot pretty closeup without establishing the geography as much as I like, and I was glad they let go of that style for the finale. He said he thought that was intentional, and I thought duh, I’m sure he’s right. Bobby has to fail, start over, and come back with a different view of his purpose, so the action is still fast and visceral but there’s much more clarity to it. And that’s why he succeeds this time. It’s beautiful.

Patel is credited as co-writer of the script along with Paul Angunawela and John Collee. The latter wrote MASTER AND COMMANDER, HAPPY FEET and HOTEL MUMBAI, which must be how Patel knows him (just like much of the cast).

Man, look at this thing. An international co-production, influenced by all the great modern action movies, combining revenge, crime, and underground fighting, done with great style and production value, culturally specific but thematically universal, plus it’s got a little weirdness and shades of grey for added spice. Yeah, of course I loved this!

I think this is a special action movie, I hope it’s not the last one we get from Patel. I can’t wait to see what he does next, or to find out who’s the next Dev Patel out there ready to give us their “MONKEY MAN in _______.”

p.s. The former Birth.Movies.Death writer Siddhant Adlakha did a piece for Time called “Monkey Man’s Political Critique Misses the Point” that’s worth reading. I believe he’s lived in the U.S. most of his life but he grew up in Mumbai and has an understanding of Indian politics that most of us here don’t. Though he’s overall semi-positive about the movie he points out that it sidesteps the central issue of mistreatment/displacement of Muslims, and writes that its mixture of Hindu imagery and violence is too similar to the growing nationalist movement it means to criticize. It’s an interesting and compelling argument, though I think that the movie being made in English suggests that speaking to the current situation in India is not Patel’s primary goal.

update: Siddhant contacted me and very politely mentioned that “I’m not sure how monkey man being in English precludes it from speaking on Indian politics, since English is one of India’s official languages and English language films release there all the time!” So please forgive my ignorant last sentence and check out his piece.

This entry was posted on Friday, April 12th, 2024 at 2:19 pm and is filed under Reviews, Action, Crime. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “Monkey Man”

  1. Grrrr… Attempted to see this Monday, but it’s not playing at the non-chain, non-annoying theater. And AMC (true to form) canceled the showtime I was going to attend.

    I was under the impression they were giving this a real release. But it seems in actuality it’s more of a performative release before it’s on streaming probably next week. These releases are rough for us who work weekends.

  2. I loved this one. If you’ll indulge my female gaze for a moment, I’ll just say hubba hubba about Patel. My apologies for such vulgarity. But seriously, he was great in this. I’m not saying anything new in these circles by saying that I love a good performance where the emotion is kept tight. That’s how most of the action heroes express their emotions and, yeah, I’m sure a lot of that is due to the actors not having the most range, but a nice, contained, emotional performance that is expressed through sad eyes and bloody violence just does it for me. I think Patel does have a lot of talent and can handle this kind of performance very well. I didn’t know about the action aspect and was very happy with how well he did there. There were a few action beats that I thought at the time, “I don’t think I’ve seen that before!” I can’t think of them right now, though. Maybe one – not that I’ve never seen it, but maybe not quite this way, was when he stabbed a guy in the throat with the knife in his teeth. It was the way he did it with such slow delicacy and then twisted the knife all the while you see every one of his teeth shining bright against the colorful lighting and background.

    Speaking of, I thought a lot of shots were absolutely gorgeous. The color saturation and lighting were fantastic. The shot of him in the elevator with the red lighting was great and not just because he looked hot (see my previous hubba hubba above). But I agree with Vern that some of the action, especially early on, was a bit shaky. And it wasn’t just the action. What really got to me, though, was how many extreme closeups were used. And along with that there were quite a few shots that were purposefully out of focus. I think I will like those shots/be able to follow them better on a smaller screen. When it’s on the big screen it’s hard to take in everything when it’s filmed like that.

    Another thing I loved was the training montage/period of the film wasn’t really training to fight. He knew how to fight. It was about getting his head straight and aligned with the fighting. It was like he had to get his head, heart and body in alignment to get the fighting up to the level he needed to be that warrior he wanted to be.

  3. I thought it was less than the sum of its parts and a bit pretentious. It tries to depict Bobby/Kid/oh God we’re going nameless protagonist with this, as becoming spiritually enlightened, but he really just gets better at fighting? SPOILERSSPOILERSSPOILERS He starts the movie being willing to sacrifice himself to get revenge for his mother and he ends the movie… sacrificing himself to get revenge for his mother, as well as beating men to death after they’re unconscious on the ground, killing men as they beg for mercy, mutilating women while they’re unconscious. The mixture of him fucking up everyone who’s pissed him off AND him tapping into cosmic spirituality doesn’t sit well with me.

    I also thought a lot of the tropes which would be appropriate for a down and dirty vigilante B-movie didn’t mesh well with this movie’s political and religious aspirations. The mother who gets raped and murdered to motivate him to kick ass is really egregious fridging for a 2024 movie. The minority group that’s a bunch of supremely spiritual badasses (which is pretty condescending on its own), but need a member of the majority to motivate them and actually lead them into battle. It ended up making the movie feel schizophrenic to me; like they wanted to get credit for putting a lot of thought into their silly action movie, but also they just wanted to do a silly action movie and not think too much.

  4. I dunno about your final assessment that speaking to the situation in India wasn’t his goal. This was a movie that felt, to me, like it’s maker had things on his mind that he was furious about. The brutality of the conclusion of the final two fights didn’t feel like they were meant to excite, but instead were an expression of long-held anger.

    I’m hardly equipped to talk Hindi imagery or Indian politics, but my gut instinct is that these were decisions to try and take some of these symbols back and that’s there some cognitive dissonance as a result. Were there an American film about a warrior taking on a Trump-proxy and his cronies but the hero wrapped himself in the imagery of patriotism that’s often claimed by the Right, I think there’d also be some friction there to overcome.

  5. Well, this would be more like if there were an American movie about a fighter taking revenge on Trump and Fox News (which is a bit of a scuzzy prospect to begin with) and there was a subplot about him learning from a bunch of nuns and internalizing their beliefs, and then he still ended up caving in skulls. I wouldn’t feel that was in keeping with the Christian beliefs he now supposedly espouses.

  6. “…But it seems in actuality it’s more of a performative release before it’s on streaming probably next week.”

    Weird, it also got kind of buried on release here in the UK – tried to watch it tonight and it was only showing a couple of times on one of the smallest screens. Had to get tickets for tomorrow.

    Went to see CIVIL WAR instead (which I originally intended to watch tomorrow) and adored it. Can’t wait for the review here.

  7. Kaplan: I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but for me it landed differently and came across more as the result of the exuberance of a first time director knowing this might be their only shot and throwing everything they had into it. And I can get behind that.

  8. I do think Patel shows a lot of talent behind the camera here. But yes, the ending seemed to be a bit mixed-up and confused.
    I may have missed something, but the transgender population had been basically exiled. When Patel leads them into battle, the President(?) dies, and it has become a defacto revolution. But is the revolution being seen as the actions of the transgender community? What kind of revolution are we talking about?

    If that community is getting revenge for being exiled, and overthrowing the government, well, that’s a big deal. I’d want to know more about that!
    If the revolution only features the transgender community in a minor way, and is largely driven by the poor, or dispossessed or even just another political party, well… good for that region, but communities like that aren’t always served by such violent government upheaval, and in fact they’re often the first to bear the brunt of such turmoil.

    I suppose it’s radical that Patel’s character befriends these “outsiders” and becomes an ally. But we never learn whether or not he has strong feelings about the transgender community, or how they’ve been marginalized. He’s leading them into battle, but he’s also being so single-minded about his mission… does he know that he’s part of a larger cause? (Do we know if it’s a larger cause?)

    I think the simpler storytelling in the middle of the movie, where he develops an unspoken, inarticulate warmth towards his protectors, works for me. But by the end, I think it should have been acknowledged that it was a bit more loaded than that.

  9. Saw this tonight. Loved it and catching so many great action movie influences referenced.
    Obviously John Wick gets all the comparisons but I loved the nods to Bloodsport, The Raid, Refn’s Drive and especially Only God Forgives which always deserves more love than it gets. So many stand out scenes but the the last section where he fights to the slow acoustic guitar score was such a stand out. I only wish he had fought in the bleached monkey mask a bit longer.

    Great review Vern! I was hoping you wrote on this today.

  10. Just saw it – Liked it a lot, but didn’t really love it. Mostly because of issues with the script, and a really underwhelming resolution to the last two big bads which really let down the ending for me.
    I mean, I wasn’t expecting them to go all Kung Fu vs. Yoga on the final boss, but at least something more than just murder them – expose their plan, their misdeeds, anything. As it stands, it will just look like a terrorist attack that the right would use to spin people into a frenzy. At least the blade was hidden in a funny place.

    As it is, I agree with Kaplan; all that spiritual awakening to… make him realize he needed to kill the yogi douchebag as well as the police captain? The warrior monk involvement was so perfunctory they might as well have skipped it.

    Still, there’s a lot of good stuff. The percussive training alone was worth the price of admission, the action was excellent and yeah, loved all the little references. Besides the ones mentioned (and it’s surprising how much Refn there was – Patel must be a fan) I thought I saw a little VILLAINESS, and this is a stretch, maybe some POLITE SOCIETY in the fights with flowing traditional dresses.
    Patel is legit great, and it *is* a gorgeous-looking movie with a lot going for it.

  11. dreadguacamole-I agree with your point on the ending. It definitely could have used something more. Even something showing the Bobby and the audience that he has more work/fighting to do, etc.

    I have not watched Villainess or Polite Society but will now.

  12. Man my wife and I just had our first kid and its amazing but he really showed up just in time to stop me being able to see this at the cinema and like… fuckin pull your head in baby.

  13. Having seen the 2018 combo of HOTEL MUMBAI and THE WEDDING GUEST, I had a suspicion that Patel had a real action star inside him, but I did not see this coming. In the end I liked it a lot rather than loved it, for many of the reasons mentioned above, particularly the lack of action clarity in the first half. That does indeed look like a stylistic choice but it still irritated me, and more than the vagaries of the plot or any political confusion.

    But what I loved is that this is the movie Patel made. Yes, it’s flawed but we should applaud him using his clout to do this. And there are some wonderful moments: Maggie already mentioned the elevator kill (and she’s right to flag how good Patel looks too; that’s something he’s been doing for a while now), and many have mentioned the tabla-based training montage, but I also appreciated the set up and pay off with the dog and how the camera followed the dog, echoing the original purse snatch; and I loved it when the hirja cavalry arrived just as all seemed lost.

    There are some pretty clear nods, especially at the end, to THE MAN FROM NOWHERE and several Kim Jee-woon movies – A BITTERSWEET LIFE is written all over that ending – and Patel has not been quiet about his admiration for Korean cinema generally, and that can only be a good thing.

    I gotta agree with Vern, this is a special movie.

  14. That’s nicely said, Borg9, I would echo your comment entirely. I didn’t *love* this movie for the same reason, but I liked it a lot, and I appreciate that Dev Patel made this his passion project. Most actors, their passion project would be a lot more self-indulgent and inaccessible (i.e. Bradley Cooper) but Dev Patel laid it all on the line to make something awesome and entertaining. I’m hopeful he’ll do another action movie where he has a little more time and doesn’t get so injured making it.

  15. I really liked this movie and I am excited to see what Patel does next but I have to confess to being disappointed how much of the action is presented. Fortunately most of the fights are not that bad but overall the action felt overedited and too shaky for my taste. The chase scene after his first assassination attempt flirts with being an incomprehensible blur at times it was so aggressively edited. I like everything else about the film so much my issues with the action didn’t ruin it for me but I was let down. I swear they also added artificial digital camera whooshes to cover up blending shots instead of cutting in a way I don’t like either. However all things considered it is an impressive debut from Patel.

  16. I thought this was fucking awesome, basically, and that’s even with essentially agreeing with most of the critiques already noted by fellow commenters. Probably helped a lot to see it on the big screen (in a basically empty theater for what seemed to be the last screening before it leaves town). I loved the grimy, sweaty look, and the frenetic energy, and the brutality of the fights, and the bejeweled swirling trans avengers, and Sharlto Copley’s hateability, and Patel’s sad soulful eyes as well as Patel’s [SPOILER] biting a dude’s nose off in the middle of an impromptu axe fight he blunders into whilst hobbling away from a previous lost fight. My son and I both cheered and clapped at the moment toward the end when [CINEMATOGRAPHY SPOILER] the image from the poster came onscreen, with Patel slowly pacing toward the camera as a black silhouette against a vivid red backdrop. The shaky action moments to me felt like the perfect use of this particular technique, since Patel and co seemed quite conscious of when the camera was blurring and jolting up close vs pulled back for long, perfectly framed and super well choreographed action. As far as I’m concerned this has nothing at all to be ashamed of up against any of the JOHN WICKs, quite the contrary really. Fucking love that it was this guy’s first movie and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. (THE WEDDING GUEST is a very different kind of badass cinema but it’s really good and Patel is similarly awesome, though playing a VERY different character)

  17. PS To the previous comment left by Ben, from one Ben to another, depending on you and your kid and their eventual taste in cinema – right now they’re getting in the way of you seeing shit like MONKEY MAN; in a few years (ok 18 in my case) they could be right there in the theater with you, high fiving at all the good parts.

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